I am an Asian-American boy, born in America, but a descendant of China. My dad was born and raised in the Northeast region of China and my mom grew up in the Southwest part of the country. They met at Beijing University, got married in 1998, and moved to America before I was born. I have only been to China twice in my life.
The first time my parents took me to their home country I was only five years old, and I don’t remember much about my visit; the last time I was there I was nine, and I remember it like it was yesterday. The flight to China was long… but I remember the excitement I felt inside of me. I bounced in my seat and stared out the little window eager to see the city lights of Beijing. “Prepare for landing,” the pilot finally announced. My heart beat faster. My parents had told me so many stories about China. About the relatives who I barely knew. About what life was like growing up in the big city. And I couldn’t wait to experience it for myself.
When the airplane hit the tarmac, I hopped off, eager to stretch my legs and see the country my parents loved. I followed my mom into the lobby. A sea of people who looked just like me buzzed around carrying suitcases and briefcases. I grasped my mom’s hand as she immediately pulled me along to the Starbucks. Wooden counters and bar stools sat to the left of the restaurant beckoning people to stop and rest, yet nobody was sitting down at the tables and relaxing. Customers grabbed their coffee, threw crinkled bills at the disgruntled server, and rushed off to catch their flights. Pushing our way through the crowds, we headed outside with our luggage. My dad raised his right arm to hail a taxi. We stumbled into the back seat, eyes barely open, and drove straight to a nearby hotel. I immediately sank into the couch and fell asleep to the sound of cars fighting in traffic.
The next day, I woke up feeling energized. I couldn’t believe we had finally made it to China. After a delicious breakfast of warm pancakes in the hotel’s cafeteria, we took a four-hour train to Anshan – my dad’s hometown. As soon as we got there, we grabbed a taxi and headed over to Grandma’s apartment. It was pouring buckets. Our taxi driver beeped the horn several times. The car in front of us beeped back. Beep! Beep! Then a police car started howling – WOOOooooeeeEEEEE! I shut my eyes and covered my ears. “Good luck,” the old taxi driver muttered as he pulled up to a rusty old apartment building decorated with mildew. The cantankerous rain soaked us to the bone as we ran to a musty old wooden door.
Shivering, we climbed up the rotting staircase and knocked on the door. Grandma squeezed me and Max. “My babies!” she cried in Chinese and gave us both a kiss on the cheek. Then, my aunt and uncle repeated the same process. I was feeling less cold after the exchange of affection.
We only stayed a few hours in the dim, dingy apartment – enough for Dad and his mother to discuss current events. I lay on a bed and watched TV. A little voice in my head exclaimed, so, this is Grandma’s house? It wasn’t at all what I had envisioned. I sighed.
Finally, after lunch, we had some peace and quiet. We walked to the garden behind a hotel, purchased some koi food, and tossed musky brown pellets into the dark pool. Lured by the prospect of food, the fish swam over to the pellets. Only the fastest ones made it to the brown dots of hope. I gazed at them as my brother laughed.
The following day, we took a taxi to the airport to head to Chengdu in Southern China. Chengdu is Mom’s hometown. I watched as China ran past, whooshing, eating, yelling. As we pulled into the parking lot, I thought about Chengdu. How Mom kept on telling stories about her family, the weather, and the spicy food.
The airplane took off. I bounced on the edge of my seat with anticipation. I couldn’t wait to be with family, taste warmer weather, and eat Kung Pao chicken. Dad handed me a book. I placed it in the seat pocket. How could I read when I could see Chengdu in the distance waiting for me?
Finally, finally the airplane hit the tarmac with a whoosh and a very loud bump. My stomach touched my throat and I felt light-headed. My brother clutched an airsickness bag to his chest, groaning. Dad glanced at him with concern as we exited the plane.
An old man was waiting outside the packed airport, dragging on a cigarette. “Jiu jiu!” my mother exclaimed. I wondered if he was related to us as he lovingly squeezed my brother. He threw our luggage into the backseat of a new gray car and drove us to our rental apartment. We passed by a metropolis that rivaled Beijing. Commercials blared exotic-looking products, people were again rushing around, and cars fought, honking. There was a swimming pool in front of the tall granite building. “See you at the reunion!” he called, waving. Reunion? I wondered as the elevator hummed up to floor 26.
Creeaakkk… the door went. I gasped. The light blue walls! The plump bed! The bird’s-eye view of downtown Chengdu! It smelled fresh and inviting. The fridge was humming. I put my nose on the frosty glass of the window and stared at the ants marching on the roads and sidewalks. Metal candy bars peeked up at me. “Wow,” I breathed. This was modern, clean, and fresh, the antithesis of my grandma’s apartment.
We hung out in the apartment for a couple hours. Then Mom looked at the clock on the wall. “It’s time to call jiu jiu,” she said to Dad.
The old man who was with us at the airport was back. He drove us to a large restaurant. A group of 50 people- my aunt, grandpa, other grandma, and cousin among them were waving us over to a golden table with matching chairs. Their smiles said simply, Welcome home.
That was the most comforting thing I had seen in China so far. Our big family was inviting us over to their table in a foreign country. Even though I look the same – black hair, pale-ish tan skin, dark brown eyes- I had always felt detached from my ancestry. Until now. That very moment, I felt connected. China is the jade that I was made from, but America is the one who molded and painted me. I smiled warmly. Because I, a Chinese-American boy, finally fit in.